Pennsylvania leads the nation in confirmed cases of COVID-19 among meat production workers, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday, the same day that activists and workers from one Central Pennsylvania plant began protesting what they described as unsafe working conditions.

Across Pennsylvania, 22 meat- and poultry-processing plants employed workers sickened by the coronavirus, the report says. The state with the next highest number of impacted plants, Georgia, has almost half as many affected facilities.

Pennsylvania’s 858 confirmed cases of the virus among meat production workers also tops other states’ tallies by dozens of cases, signaling that the invisible virus had spread further across this essential industry in recent weeks than the public has realized.

At the same time, Lebanon County poultry processor Bell & Evans, the target of the protesters’ ire, refused to publicly disclose the number of coronavirus cases at its plant in Fredericksburg, northeast of Harrisburg, where workers say they got sick because the company was slow providing face masks and where social distancing is especially difficult.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) called on Bell & Evans to release the number of cases immediately. A spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R. Pa.) also said the company must follow federal rules requiring it to report the number of employees suspected of contracting COVID-19 at work.

Wendell Young IV, who leads the 35,000-member United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1776, had a one-word initial reaction to the state’s ranking:

“Wow,” said Young, whose union represents workers in four Pennsylvania meat plants that closed temporarily due to concerns about the pandemic. He added that the CDC’s findings make sense because many of the facilities are located on the I-80 corridor that stretches east to New York.

“Look at the confluence of interstates that connect Pennsylvania to the entire Eastern Seaboard,” Young said.

While big coronavirus caseloads at large meat-processing facilities in the west have garnered considerable attention — such as an outbreak at a massive, 3,000-worker plant in Colorado — Pennsylvania has long had a vigorous meat-processing sector, albeit one made up of numerous smaller plants

Pennsylvania’s meat, poultry, pork, and other plants supply products for customers in New York and North Jersey. They also rely heavily on workers that travel to visit family and friends in New York, a practice that could have helped spread the disease. In addition, many workers travel to the plants in crowded passenger vans.

Young said he did not believe the companies here operated any less safely than in other states, noting that JBS Beef quickly shut down its 1,400-employee facility in Souderton for cleaning after workers there tested positive for COVID-19. That plant has since reopened.

The CDC report identifies one death among Pennsylvania’s meat-processing workers, but that tally is incomplete.

On April 9, The Inquirer reported the death of Enock Benjamin, a union steward at the Souderton facility. An Inquirer article published April 28 documented a second worker death, this one connected to the Bell & Evans facility in Fredericksburg, as well as the death of a Bell & Evans employee’s spouse.

The CDC identified common problems that it says may increase meat-processing workers’ risk of contracting or transmitting the virus.

Workers typically stand shoulder-to-shoulder along a fast-moving conveyor belt, making it difficult to stay 6 feet away from one another as the agency has recommended. Social distancing is also tough to implement during breaks and while workers enter and exit the facilities.

Consistent, effective use of masks on the job is another challenge for workers in this industry, the CDC found. The report says that scientists observed some workers wearing masks that covered only their mouths and were often seen readjusting their face coverings while working.

Melissa Perry, an environmental and occupational health expert at George Washington University who studies the meat-processing industry, said that positioning workers 6 feet apart on production lines is paramount in preventing the spread of the virus, even if output suffers.

“Slowing down the line by having fewer workers elbow to elbow is essential,” Perry said. “No production process should compromise the 6-foot rule.”

Earlier Friday, 30 activists and workers from Bell & Evans – family-owned and producer of organic, antibiotic-free chicken that’s sold at Whole Foods – drove in a caravan from a Lebanon high school parking lot to the plant in Fredericksburg to protest the company’s response to the pandemic.

Through a loudspeaker blasting from the open doors of a passenger van, the workers called on the company, which prides itself on treating chickens humanely, to close the plant for deep-cleaning and offer sick workers paid time off to recuperate at home.

“They’re abusing the workers while they say they’re protecting the animals, and that does not make any sense,” said Maegan Llerena, executive director of Make the Road PA, the Latinx advocacy organization that led the protest and has been supporting the workers.

State Sen. Judy Schwank(D., Berks County), said she knows people who work at the Bell & Evans plant in Fredericksburg and called news that a worker there had died “horrifying.” She urged the company to cut production to keep workers safe.

“That won’t be an easy thing to do. It could mean barns full of broilers waiting to be processed,” Schwank said. “But it has to happen.”

The company has not responded to multiple requests for comment all week. However, on April 29, a day after The Inquirer published its report, Bell & Evans announced on its website that it had adopted new strategies to contain the spread of the virus, such as installing dividers between team members “where social-distancing guidelines were not practical.”

The company also announced that employees are required to wear face masks and face shields. However, the company did not say as part of its safer working conditions that it would slow production.

Earlier in April, the company announced it would screen employees’ temperatures as they enter the facility and restructure employees’ schedules to reduce social interaction.

Even as a growing number of meat-processing workers become sickened with the coronavirus, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the CDC all say the disease cannot be spread through food.

It’s an “unstable virus” that is mostly transmitted through sneezing and person-to-person contact, Martin Wiedmann, a professor in food safety at Cornell University, told The Inquirer. Stomach acids also mostly neutralize the virus if it’s eaten.

Wiedmann described the risk of the virus’ spreading on food packaging as “extremely low, virtually nil,” because of the time between packaging and the placement on supermarket shelves. But he added that grocery shoppers should always wash their hands after returning from the store.